Two San Rafael Churches conduct a joyful experiment in sharing space (and everything else)

If you’ve ever gone through a home renovation project, you know how disruptive it can be — not being able to use certain spaces or having to adjust your usual routines around the construction. In some cases, construction requires you to move out for a while. Now imagine you’re part of a church congregation that has to vacate its premises, and you have some idea what St. Paul’s, San Rafael faced this spring.

A long-planned project to update and refurbish the patio and courtyard outside the church was in its planning stages when the contractor told St. Paul’s rector the Rev. Christopher Martin that there would be no access to any of the buildings for at least a month. That included the church, the parish hall, and the pre-school that rents space from the church. Luckily for St. Paul’s, they have been building collaborative relationships with other Marin County churches for the past four years, exploring shared resources, and developing a vision for the Episcopal Church in Marin. So they knew they could turn to their neighbor to the north: the Church of the Nativity.

According to Nativity rector the Rev. Kirsten Snow Spalding, sharing space with a sister congregation was “the next natural step, following on our experiments with shared youth group, joint Vestry retreats, combined outreach efforts, and pulpit swaps.” Judy Rowcliffe, St. Paul’s altar guild director and former Senior Warden, agrees that “it made sense. Our Vestry has used the Nativity campus for retreats, and due to the pulpit swaps, we were familiar with Kirsten.”

Once the two churches had agreed to share space, they faced the daunting task of figuring out just what that was going to mean. Not only would the St. Paul’s congregation be worshipping at Nativity on Sundays but all the groups who use St. Paul’s space would need meeting places. “We started with sharing calendars, then gradually reached out to all of the groups who use our space and St. Paul’s space,” Spalding explains. Nativity Senior Warden Everil Robertson, adds that there was some concern about space issues. “St. Paul’s is a much bigger congregation with lots of space for their many activities,” she says. “Would we be able to make time and space available for them?” Involving all the stakeholders and considering all the details required lots of effort and several meetings, beginning in late March.

In the end, coordinating schedules was easier than anticipated. ‘We were pleasantly surprised that there were very few conflicts and overlaps,” Rowcliffe says. “The solution was to move meeting times by 15 minutes or so.” Other details included making sure the leaders of each group knew which room to use, how to access Nativity’s building, even how to make coffee. Nativity parishioners agreed to be on hand each day during the first week, just to be sure there were no snags.

Coordinating weekday activities was only the first hurdle. “Then we began working on joint liturgy, thinking about presiding and preaching, combined altar guilds, lectors, Eucharistic ministers, ushers, music directors, and choirs,” Spalding explains. Everything had to be taken into consideration, from bulletins to distribution of the weekly offerings to the number of cups available for coffee hour. According to Robertson, “we went to work recruiting Nativity volunteers to work with their St. Paul’s counterparts in preparation and making decisions about the practical details.”

Spalding adds that Nativity’s preparation included “a ‘deep cleaning’ to make our space welcoming.” Robertson says, “We like to think of ourselves as pretty tidy, but when we looked at our space through the eyes of ‘company,’ we arranged for some clean-up Saturdays.” That helped make room for St. Paul’s to store their vestments, linens, and other necessary items.

In the weeks leading up to May 1, communication became the priority. For Spalding, that meant exploring what “welcome” really means. “It’s not just about giving people access to ‘our way of doing things,’ but really making room for both of our congregations to create something new.” Martin says he told his congregation, “I’m looking forward to May because, for that whole month, I get to hang out with lots of people I respect and love.” There were frequent announcements in both churches’ online newsletters, weekly bulletins, and small group meetings, all in preparation for the time together.

On the first Sunday in May, Nativity’s pews were full and the worship services went off without a hitch. Spalding reports that, at the 8 o’clock service, she had to experiment with some different configurations of pews and chairs to accommodate everyone as close to the altar as possible. Now, as May comes to an end, all parties agree: the space sharing has gone incredibly well. “There has been a real joy in the combined worship,” says Spalding. Rowcliffe agrees that it’s been nice to develop a larger community of Episcopalians.

Looking ahead, Martin says he hopes that “on the other side of our adventure at Nativity, we will all have made some new friends and deepened some old friendships.” Members of both congregations add that this experiment opens the doors for more sharing — resources, outreach ministries, worship, and more.

To other congregations that may need to share space in a similar way in the future, both senior wardens say familiarity with each other is crucial. Rowcliffe advises “hosting events at each other’s campuses, pulpit swaps, joining together in community service – so that the churches ‘know’ each other a bit.” Says Robertson, “the sharing of resources with our sister churches over the years has laid a foundation that made this unique time together a very normal and easy decision for our congregation.”

Spalding adds that “the real key to the success of this experiment was the deep understanding that sharing space is not just about being nice; it’s about building up the Body of Christ in our corner of the world.  We are fulfilling Jesus’ call to us to love one another (John 13:34, Rom. 12:10, 1 Peter 22) as we share space, ministry, formation activities and worship. Rooted in this fundamental belief, the details become manageable challenges not insurmountable obstacles.”